Moulded plastic DSW chairs by Charles and Ray Eames, 1948. [photo: Herman Miller]
Walk through your local shopping centre and you’ll find an A-Z of designer chairs: colourful metal replica Tolix chairs in the food court; Philippe Starck ‘Ghost’ chairs in the cafe; and glossy Panton chairs in the beauty salon.
In the 1940s and '50s, Charles and Ray Eames advocated design for the masses. But being able to purchase an imitation ‘Barcelona’ chair with your milk and bread at Aldi, or a replica Eames moulded plastic chair along with a new toner cartridge at Officeworks may not be what they had in mind.
Replica traders argue that they are making good design accessible to all and increasing people’s knowledge of mid-century designers such as Mies Van Der Rohe, Verner Panton and Hans J Wegner. But furniture companies representing the original designers say these copies are unauthorised and that no royalties are going the way of the artist.
Panton chair by Verner Panton, 1967.
And it’s not only large manufacturers - such as US furniture giant Herman Miller, the licensee for Eames products who took Matt Blatt to court in 2011 - who are being affected by the replica racket.
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but British lighting and furniture designer David Trubridge may not agree. The New Zealand-based designer created his iconic ‘Coral’ pendant in 2003, but he now has to spend time and money on lawyers trying to stop replicas being made in Chinese factories.
Unauthorised replica versions of his pendants started to appear a couple of years ago. “They didn’t ask permission,” he says. “And when we questioned them they’d say, ‘We know our rights and are within the law’.”
‘Coral’ pendant by David Trubridge, 2003.
Unlike many countries, Australia’s copyright laws allow faux furniture to be sold as long as the seller acknowledges that it is a replica. "The thinking is that the buyer has the full knowledge of what they’re buying; they’re being told it’s a copy and there is no guarantee that it will be the same quality as the original. This is all very well for the buyer but it’s not going to encourage designers to come up with new designs, if it is legal for them to be copied,” he explains. “It’s not encouraging innovation; it only encourages the race to make more cheap goods.”
Like all replicas, the phony pendants go against the original design goals of the artist. Sustainability is at the forefront of all of Trubridge’s designs, which are laser-cut from eco-friendly bamboo plywood in a local workshop, and then sold as a kit-set to save on the environmental impact of freight. The replica versions are constructed from timber, not bamboo, and are sold assembled rather than flat-packed, increasing the cost of shipping, both environmentally and financially. Ironically, the replica version retails for $289 plus postage, while the real deal is just $336, with free postage.
Danish mid-century furniture expert Jytte Laulund from Sydney’s Vampt Vintage Design is astounded by Australia’s booming replica trade.
Egg chair by Fritz Hansen, 1958.
“In Denmark, reproducing a classic design is considered theft. If you want to buy an Egg chair, there is one manufacturer. When you enter Danish eBay, there is a warning saying that you commit an offence if you try to sell replica goods. The copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the designer,” she says.
“Every week, people come into the store and ask, ‘Why should we pay $1000 for this when we can buy the replica version for half the price?’ Danish furniture comes with a lifespan of 150-200 years, and can be restored over its lifespan,” says Laulund. “With replicas, the standards are lowered – they use timber before it’s mature and poor quality leather with toxic dyes.”
Laulund warns that differences in dimensions can affect the performance of the item. “Danish lighting consists of a series of panels, and slight variations in the distance between the panels makes for a terrible change in the light being cast from above.”
Barcelona chair by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1929.
“The chrome and metal finishes on replica chairs are rusted within a couple of years, screws fall out, shells break,” adds Vampt’s David Beeman. “It’s about not being part of a throwaway society. These replica pieces end up in landfill. To buy a chair that will last three or four years to fulfill a trend and then go to the tip makes no sense.”
Melbourne interior designer Camilla Molders agrees. “Replica furniture is made with so many cut corners that it is very quickly going to be added to the rubbish pile. It damages the integrity of the original designs, which yes, are expensive to purchase, but the creators have put so much time, money and resources into coming up with new techniques and products.”
And quality is not all that is disappearing with the rise in replicas. “The idea of furniture being passed down through generations is lost. It’s devaluing our psyche about what furniture is – it should be about longevity and value,” says Beeman.
To get the mid-century look at an affordable price, Andrei Meintjes of retro and vintage furniture store Collectika suggests browsing Etsy, eBay, auctions, estate clearances and garage sales to unearth original pieces.
“From an aesthetic point of view, replicas work for stylists and decorators as they give the look immediately,” Meintjes says. “But vintage designer pieces tell a story – they’ve got that patina, and you can’t buy that history in a reproduction. What separates them is that they’ve been sitting in someone’s Seidler house in Turramurra for the last 30 years, as opposed to fresh off a shipping container from China.”
Real vs replica: price points
Eames Hang It All - real: $275 vs replica: $69
Eames DSW side chair - real: $495 vs replica: $69
Panton chair - real: $495 vs replica: $99
Kartell Louis Ghost chair - real: $500 vs replica: $129
Vintage Featherston armchair - real: $15000 vs replica: $1100
Vintage Louis Poulson PH5 light - real: $975 vs replica: $325